ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The first of 80 heated, radio-controlled switches at Alaska Railroad sidings from South Anchorage to Fairbanks goes into operation Thursday.
It will allow trains to pass each other more safely and efficiently, cutting up to 90 minutes off travel time between the state's largest cities.
The new system will keep switches clear of ice and snow and can be triggered from inside the train. At present, a brakeman or conductor has to get off the train, chip ice and sweep snow off the switches and engage them manually to allow one train to pull onto a siding while another passes. The process is repeated for the train on the siding to pull back onto the main track.
Similar automated systems have been in use in other states for a half-century.
The system uses generators driven by solar, wind and diesel power to blow superheated air beneath the rails at railroad sidings. The heat will keep the track and switches ice and snow-free.
The siding at Hurricane, about 50 miles north of Talkeetna, was chosen as the first location for the new system.
Railroad president Bill Sheffield said all the new switches should be in place by 2004, at a cost of about $60 million. The development is part of a $250 million railroad modernization program, largely funded by the federal government, that includes track and railbed upgrades and curve reductions.
The projects are important, Sheffield said. The Alaska Railroad was built in 1923, was last rehabbed in the 1950s and in the past year suffered three major derailments.
Automated siding switches controlled by centrally located dispatchers have been staples in rail systems in other states for 40 to 50 years, said Loren Mueller, the Alaska Railroad's chief of operations. Their adoption here is long overdue, he said.
Formerly operations chief of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, Mueller took over operations at the Alaska Railroad last spring.
The siding improvements will save money for the railroad and allow it to deliver freight and passengers more quickly.
''Trains will be able to get around each other a lot faster,'' said Patrick Shake, the railroad's transportation superintendent.
That will be important if the railroad tries to develop a commuter rail system between the Mat-Su Valleys and Anchorage.
''It would be impossible to run a commuter service without it,'' Mueller said.
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